Columbia convention center helps downtown growth, retiring center manager says

Mack Stone, the long-time manager of the Columbia Convention Center, retired Friday.
Mack Stone, the long-time manager of the Columbia Convention Center, retired Friday. tdominick@thestate.com

Charles “Mack” Stone retired Friday after serving 14 years as the founding manager of the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center.

During that time, he’s seen downtown Columbia transform from a sleepy state government and college town to an increasingly vibrant draw for young professionals and tourists.

His retirement caps a 43-year career in venue management and trade show production.

Stone, a University of South Carolina graduate, opened and managed the Greenwood Civic Center from 1973-77. He went on to manage the Myrtle Beach Convention Center and the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Convention & Trade Center.

From there, he moved to Phoenix and oversaw operations of the city’s convention center, symphony hall, municipal baseball stadium, three adjacent parking garages and a theater complex.

Longing for the South, Stone worked in trade show production in Chattanooga before moving to Columbia to open the city’s first convention center.

Stone, 67, and his wife of 45 years, Amy, plan to retire in the Lowcountry. But they will return to tailgate with friends and cheer on their beloved Gamecocks.

Q. You’ve seen the city transform during your time at the convention center. What does Columbia need to do to attract convention business?

A. The region’s transformation has benefited convention business positively, and vice versa.

Convention attendees dine, shop and play at area businesses after their sessions conclude for the day. Meeting planners and convention attendees – especially those not familiar with Columbia’s revitalization – are often surprised that we have so much going on here. The word is getting out that Columbia is a great destination for conventions.

Overall tourism, including leisure, business and convention travel is doing well and hotel occupancy is relatively strong for our market size. We could use more available hotel room blocks for convention groups.

Q. The Convention Center has been criticized for being too small. Has its size affected what you have done? If so, how?

A. Our priority is to recruit groups that will utilize most, if not all, of the building for multiple days at a time.

We’ve become experts in fitting 10 pounds into a 5-pound box. We’ve even transformed our parking lot into event space at times, as in the case of the FLW Forrest Wood Cup Expo. Our size also affects calendar availability, as we fill up quickly and need to work with the planners to find mutually beneficial event dates.

As the city grows, and as association and trade groups grow in membership, we, too, need to look at the future. We’re at a point where some of our multi-day groups are outgrowing the building and moving to destinations with larger venue spaces. We’re currently in the early stages of exploring opportunities, such as a building expansion, that will allow us to keep up with demand and growth.

Q. Short of expansion, are there any improvements in store?

A. We’re building out a few more meeting rooms within the existing building. Demand for additional breakout space continues to grow and this will allow us to better meet our clients’ needs.

We’re also improving the building’s technology to meet today’s convention needs. For example, we’re adding additional internet fiber and access points to increase Wi-Fi capability and upgrading the sound system.

Q. What was your biggest accomplishment?

A. Building and retaining a great team.

I started working here in 2002, before there was even a building. Many of my colleagues who helped open the facility in 2004 still work here today. We continue to grow attendance and revenue each year, and the team has been and is responsible for that. We’re currently on track to close out this fiscal year with one of the best, if not the best, years in the building’s 13-year history.

Q. You have probably seen some unusual events over the years. What sticks out the most?

A. The events immediately following the October 2015 floods.

One in particular was a dinner for 800 people.

As you know, there was a water boil warning in the downtown area for about a week following the floods. We met with the event organizers and they wanted to move forward with the dinner as planned. So we got creative.

We ordered all the ice we could find in Lexington County, ordered premade coffee and tea and used bottled water for all cooking needs. Just to be safe, we turned off all the water in the kitchens and worked with DHEC on our plans. The dinner went off without a hitch.

I will always remember that event and how much our team pulled together to identify creative solutions and make the event a success for our client and their attendees.